From July 31 to August 6, the lush mountains of Slovenia once again set the scene for the 8th edition of PIFcamp: a summer camp for hackers, makers, artists and other techno-explorers. Makery reports.
PIFcamp is not quite a festival, or a residency, or a workshop series, or a summer school, but perhaps a little of everything. “Our format doesn’t really have a good name,” admit organizers Uroš Veber and Rea Vorginčič (Tina Malina, co-founder and pillar of PIFcamp, is on maternity leave, but still very much present) at Projekt Atol, Institute of arts and sciences, which hosts PIFcamp in collaboration with Ljudmila art laboratory and Kersnikova Institute. “People don’t know what they’re stepping into.”
And yet, every summer for the past eight years, some 60 participants have come together in the Soča valley, in the heart of the Slovenian Alps. “We are a temporary, international community, which meets every year for one week, in relative isolation,” Uroš says of this particular group. PIFcampers – hackers, makers, artists, e-textile artisans, live coders, etc. – must stay for the entire week in order to foster this group spirit. This hybrid format has proven successful, as each year about half of PIFcampers are returnees.
How do 65 individuals whose profiles are as varied as their goals creatively cohabit for a whole week in the great outdoors? It all starts with the selection process, long before the camp begins, explain the organizers. “In the application, we ask questions. We ask applicants to write a sort of mini cover letter, which gives us a lot of information,” says Rea. They choose profiles that will integrate well into the group and the event, who will bring knowledge. “If we sense that they are fun, it’s a plus!” adds Uroš. They have refined their method over the years, while trying to maintain a relative balance of genders, which is still a challenge. Once an applicant is accepted, an exchange begins: sourcing materials, making the perfect PIFcamper manual. “It’s the only time when we really know what’s going on,” confides Rea.
“You don’t need to be a star”
Little by little, the organizers leave the keys with the PIFcamp community – at least on the surface. No more poster announcements for presentations on designated topics, now “our content is less structured,” says Uroš. The organizers hand over the reins to a democratic, self-assembling community: “It’s the magic of the situation, we just want to create a space to let the program grow.” The PIF team acts in the shadows, subtly suggesting that one participant speak to another, creating shared moments by organizing talks during mealtimes, as part of their “soft method”.
In this horizontal environment, PIFcampers reach out. “The idea is not to flex,” confirms Uroš. “Some people have incredible talents, we don’t want that to be intimidating. Here, you don’t need to be a star.” It’s this exchange that nurtures the lateral knowledge-sharing that characterizes PIFcamp. Everyone has their eureka moment when, through a chance encounter or conversation, their project sees a breakthrough.
“It’s Google in real life,” jokes Miha Godec, a media artist who had her ePIFany thanks to an expert in artificial intelligence: “In a five-minute conversation, she unraveled my problem.”
For younger participants, PIFcamp is also an opportunity to observe and learn. “I find inspirations for the educational workshops that I’ll give to the kids when classes start again,” says Jakob Grčman, intermedia youth educator at Kersnikova Institute. Eva Devebc, a biologist with no formal training in art who is also involved in Kersnikova Institute projects, agrees: “I observe and absorb different ways of carrying out artistic practices.”
Learning to relax
This freedom is double-edged. As PIFcampers build their own program for the week, all the workshops begin to add up. “Participants were beginning to feel overwhelmed,” recalls Uroš. Now, echoing the local residents, the organizers insist on the importance of relaxing and enjoying the exceptional natural environment of the Slovenian Alps. “It’s not mandatory to finish your project or artwork by the end of the week,” Uroš emphasizes.
To encourage relaxation and social bonding, hikes are scheduled throughout the week. Far from their projects, participants free their minds and learn to know each other differently. The last hike, a group walk along the banks of the Soča river that ends with a swim in the freezing water, is mandatory.
Eight years after the inaugural edition, the three organizing institutions are still looking for ways to improve their flagship event. The following years will focus on inclusiveness and the event’s environmental impact: “How can we reduce PIFcamp’s footprint while remaining international?” In this year of drought, when even the Soča is running low, this issue is all the more pressing. 65 brains will be on it!
More on PIFcamp
PIFcamp is part of the Feral Labs network and the cooperative project Rewilding Cultures co-funded by the Europe Creative programme of the European Union.